A grand ending

Days before the year’s close, another dismantling was on display outside our windows. Breathtaking views tugged at unexpecting heart strings, coloring the brightly monumental with shades of nostalgia. The workers, strangers before, now waved back to a captivated boy and the mom with the camera. The fourth wall demolished, lives on display. It felt like the last day of summer, heavy and fleeting at once.

What had begun so concurrently with our own grand-scale reconstruction as to seem a reflection of it had grown apart from us, into familiar permanence. It became a beacon of industry regarded with nothing but wonder. A weathervane for the astronauts, or a colossal plant on the windowsill, turning as if toward and away from the sun. Now, the giant stalk is picked apart, dimensions collapse, a landscape is shocked into change.

The transition is over, the construction has been a success. Soon, orchids will peek out of windows that haven’t yet been fitted with panes. It is, so aptly, a time to celebrate endings, embrace emergence, mourn permanence.

In the year to come, we will remember the crane that seemed close enough to reach out and touch with our hands. We will strive to live well, wave back, bear loss and reclaim the sky.

Photos of the construction site at Warsaw’s Różana taken by the author on the morning of December 28, 2016.
Emotions ran high, routines were disruptive: key moments were missed, but the spirit has been captured.

All rights reserved.

Cream of beet soup with rosemary

Cream of beet soup with rosemary and garlic-rosemary croutons in legendary cookware by Danish designer Ole Palsby. Photo by the author, taken with the Leica X1.

Earthy and woodsy, filling yet vegetal, cream of beet soup with rosemary is both a fresh take on Polish holiday food and warming all-purpose winter fare. Made with water instead of stock, it is easy to prepare and boasts clean flavors that marry well with a garnish of olive-oil croutons seasoned with garlic and rosemary. Other tasty possible toppings include roasted or sautéed potatoes or yams, as well as raw apples or pears, chopped and dressed lightly with cider vinegar or lemon juice and fruity olive oil.

You can download the recipe, but be warned it’s po polsku. If Polish isn’t your thing, here’s a summary: Soften a small onion or a couple of shallots in olive oil, along with the finely minced leaves of one stem of rosemary (about 1 tsp, which is plenty). Add a smashed clove of garlic, making sure nothing is browning. Now add three medium beets and one medium potato, peeled and in chunks, enough water to cover and at least a half-teaspoon of salt. Cook at a steady simmer, until the vegetables yield to a fork. Season the soup with salt, pepper and lemon juice or cider vinegar to taste. When it cools a bit, transfer to a free-standing blender or blend carefully using an immersion blender. Add water by the tablespoon to reach the desired consistency and adjust seasoning as required. When ready to eat, heat only what you need: beets lose their gorgeous color when reheated willy-nilly. Serve with swirls of cream or drizzles of olive oil, making sure to include chunky toppings of croutons, potatoes, sweet potatoes, smoked fish, chopped fruit or crumbled cheese if you’ve opted for a one-course meal.

Jewel-toned cream of beet soup with rosemary boasts clean, earthy and woodsy flavors that marry well with both aromatic croutons and the spicy sweetness of roasted yams. Porcelain plates by Hutschenreuther. Photo by the author, taken in daylight with the Leica X1.

For those here to read about more than the food, I have a bit to explain. For instance, how I fantasized about the iconic cookware line by Ole Palsby, designed in 1979 for Eva Solo, years before I ever allowed myself the indulgence. And then, once I finally had my chosen selection of pots and ingeniously flat lids, how I immediately proceeded to ruin one of these brand-new soup pots with my metal-tipped immersion blender. As it turned out, what was labeled a “ceramic coating” in the product materials wasn’t as robust as that sounds. A warranty claim on my part followed, and, sadly, a rejection of the claim by the manufacturer. I was told, no metal tools with this product line. I said, if your materials had stated that in the first place, I would have chosen the soup pot in stainless steel. I got no response.

Ordinarily, in a situation like that, I would be displeased both with the customer service and the product. In this case, however, I remain thrilled with the design and functionality of my pots, saucepans and those ingeniously flat, stackable, game-changing lids. I am, of course, more careful than I had planned to be with the vulnerable white coating. In time, I may even repurchase the damaged soup pot in the more sturdy (and more induction-responsive) stainless steel. In the meantime, I’ll continue to harvest inspiration from my near-perfect set of award-winning cookware.

An Advent adventure

Anker’s Advent calendar for 2016 makes use of the gym ladder that serves as a versatile headboard in his new room. Photo by the author, taken with the Leica X1.

A passionately secular family, we nevertheless partake, in our own way, of the social rituals organizing the Christian year. For us, the Holiday Season has always consisted of a month’s shopping, crafting and baking, with a culmination of heavy expectations, strange Polish foods and an onslaught of presents on Christmas Eve. In 2015, I reached for a new tradition, one adopted from Denmark (my six-year-old son’s other country of origin): a Decemberful of trinkets, lighting up dark winter mornings with a steady uptake of jolly cheer. Oh, sure, kids in Poland get their share of pop-out chocolates, too, but this was a different custom among the Danes I observed: real gifts, deliberate and hand-wrapped and displayed in a way worthy of fervent repinning on Pinterest.

Unbound by the facts, our Advent last year (having no other referent for “Advent” we don’t call ours a calendar) began with day zero on the last day of November and went on to include the 24th, 25th and 26th of December. All season long, it jump-started the days and harnessed that under-the-tree megadose of excitement, delivering it instead at a gentle pace (indeed, there were also fewer presents on Christmas Eve). Most importantly—our new ritual reframed the rites of Christmas itself, transforming many of those feelings I described as heavy into a childlike experience of magic.

And Anker’s experience was magical, too, I could tell.

A vexing redux for Magazyn Wino

I’m pleased to report that another piece of my writing has been deemed fit for consumption. Click on the photos for proof, and do read the magazine article if it’s something you might find interesting. As for this post—keep in mind it will be about language and writing. And be warned: most questions ahead don’t get answered.

In the early days of this blog I featured a post about ghee that combined the alimentary with the personal. Years later, tasked with my fourth culinary essay for Poland’s premier wine culture monthly, I decided to revisit the theme, now in a more editorial context, in Polish. I expected the writing to come swiftly and be painless, with many of the sentences or even entire sections a direct or approximate translation of the original. But instead of enjoying a shortcut, I wound up neck-deep in a detour—unable, for reasons unknown, to translate my own phrases, and just as unable to follow even a partial outline of the English text.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a uniquely balanced bilingual, in equal parts wary of translation and insistent on my talent for it. In graduate school I gravitated toward areas of linguistics that best informed this apparent contradiction, discovering in comparative semantics (at all levels of analysis, from discourse to morphology) a treasure map to the ways meaning is separate from language yet dependent on it, and how each is formed in the mind. My curiosity was both intellectual and deeply personal, each discovery bringing me closer not just to my master’s degree, but also to understanding my own life with two languages.

Naturally, casting myself as protagonist in my research was as doomed as it sounds. No amount of insight into the observer’s paradox could make up for my lack of interest in unbiased research, and I wound up straying far from the academic path. Fortunately, my ersatz career has permitted me to keep groping at language on my own terms, and the bilingual experience remains a tool in my work and a daily source of inspiration and pleasure.

Most of the time, I’m charmed—with the way there’s no way to say blue in the Slavic languages (you have to narrow the semantic field to light or dark blue, or use multiple words to transmit the more general meaning), or the ways I stubbornly deploy the historical past perfect (czas zaprzeszły) when speaking Polish, itching to make one grammar clear with regard to a distinction I recognize in another. Sometimes, I’m annoyed, typically with translations that exhibit the wrong trade-offs between literal and contextual aspects of meaning. Here, the title of Lena Andersson’s excellent Wilful Disregard comes to mind: not the English one, which conveys the Swedish original’s exact meaning and, just as importantly, glosses banal desperation in the heroine’s scholarly argot; my criticism is for the Polish Bez Opamiętania (roughly with abandon or without control), a banality devoid of the pretension that so cleverly informs the original. Occasionally, I am also irked by the ways people misuse or misinterpret borrowed teminology (in this era overwhelmingly English in origin), though I try not to stay mad for long: borrowings ultimately do fall far from the tree, which is why there are all those false cognates out there, eliciting glee all around (among linguists, anyway).

Rarely am I stumped. But in writing of ghee for the second time in my mirror language, I found myself no more prepared to tackle the topic—and oddly less equipped to push through the writer’s block. The technical instructions wouldn’t come together, the cultural asides didn’t belong and the personal touches I had previously included seemed out of place in the new piece. Sure, test conditions were poor and observer effect levels high—plus I wasn’t writing for the desk drawer that is my blog but for a fancy glossy with an actual readership; all kinds of things might have made writing different and difficult this time around. It is even possible that I am wrong about last time having been any easier. Nonetheless, my bet is that Polish is an order of magnitude trickier when it comes to technical instructions, less suited to resolving thematic interruptions, less acommodating of cheeky personalia and confusingly different from English with regard to argument structure and maybe even the very purpose of transmitting information.

It is beyond the scope of my inquiry today just how English and Polish differ in general or specifically on the last juicy point. I am pretty sure though that comparing the original Clarified with Kwadratura Masła (butter squared) should yield some clues. If your interest is in ghee alone—click according to the language you feel more at ease reading. But if your appetite for the linguistic rivals your love of butter, go ahead and compare—and let me know if you catch anything I might have missed because I’m way too involved.